Eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses around the globe believe that Armageddon is imminent, and the only path to survival is to follow the organisation’s strict rules.
A US-based Governing Body of eight men sits at the pinnacle of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe these men are anointed as the voice of God on Earth.
All Witnesses are expected to obey instructions and doctrines that influence every aspect of life: Women are considered subservient to men, higher education is discouraged and homosexuality is not permitted.
he organisation’s in-house production studio and publications pump out fear-driven content that keeps followers afraid that the end is coming and that they are being persecuted by the outside world.
Witnesses are also taught to distrust everyone outside the group.
The Governing Body oversees a vast global real estate portfolio, including Kingdom Halls built by congregations around the world.
The Australian branch owns at least 440 properties including a sprawling headquarters in western Sydney. Last year, it reported an income of more than $32 million.
As a religious charity, it receives significant federal and state tax exemptions.
Amy Whitby and her mother, Theresa Clare, left the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2015.
Ms Clare said she left after realising the extent of abuse within the organisation, including allegedly against her own daughter.
“They rip your reputation apart. They rip you apart as a person. I mean they even ripped me apart as a mum,” Ms Clare said.
They are scarred by what allegedly happened to Amy as an 11-year-old girl growing up in the remote Queensland town of Mount Isa. Amy said she was abused by a trusted member of the congregation, inside the home her family shared with another Jehovah’s Witnesses family.
“The job of an elder is to shepherd the congregation, to look after the flock, to keep them safe. That’s their job because we’re Jehovah’s people and it’s their job to keep us safe and they failed,” Ms Whitby said.
Ms Clare told Four Corners she complained at the time about Amy’s abuse to a Witness elder.
“There were meetings with the elders in my friend’s home, but I was never believed. I was told that I was mental. They used my illness against me because I had that breakdown and I suffered manic depression,” Ms Clare said.
As part of Ms Whitby’s legal case, she is claiming that the Jehovah’s Witnesses elders must have known her alleged abuser had been convicted the previous year of offences against an eight-year-old boy.
“There’d just be no way that those elders would not have known that he was charged, arrested by the police and then went to court,” Ms Clare said.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses say local elders weren’t aware of the prior conviction, and, regardless, the organisation isn’t responsible for the acts of its members within the family home.
Despite Ms Clare’s complaints, the man remained in the congregation and even took to the stage to deliver Bible readings.
“It would make me so angry to the point that I would get up and I’d go outside and I’d just pace. I’d just be going around and just that anger, because all I wanted to do was run in there and scream at them that he shouldn’t be allowed up there,” Ms Whitby said.
Ms Whitby is now taking legal action against the local Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation and the Australian head office. She’s suing for breaching the duty of care they owed her, by failing to protect her and allowing sexual abuse to occur.
“I feel like what happened had a bit of a domino effect on the rest of my life. I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if that hadn’t have happened, my self confidence, my self worth,” Ms Whitby said.
Attempts to settle have so far failed and Ms Whitby’s case is now headed to trial. It would be the first time in Australia that the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation has defended sexual abuse allegations in court.
Ms Whitby’s lawyer Lisa Flynn said courts in overseas jurisdictions have found the Jehovah’s Witnesses liable for failing their duty of care to children.
“We think that the Australian courts will make that same determination when they’re called on to do so.”
Lawyers who have battled the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the US and UK have told Four Corners the organisation has a global problem with both child abuse and the way it responds to victims.
They say the organisation drags cases out until the last possible moment, then settles to avoid a courtroom examination of its practices.
In Australia, a similar pattern is being seen.
“That continuous denial, the continuous delays certainly has a significant impact on our clients,” Ms Flynn said.
In a statement to Four Corners, the Jehovah’s Witnesses said, “The organisation responds directly to any claim for compensation in a caring, fair and principled manner”.
Ms Flynn’s firm, Shine Lawyers, is representing 10 former Jehovah’s Witnesses who allege they were abused within their congregations.
The people who break away from the Jehovah’s Witnesses like Amy Whitby and Theresa Clare pay a terrible price.
They remain cut off from their families and closest friends: those they love the most.
In 2017, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found the total social exclusion known as “shunning” made it difficult for abuse survivors to leave the organisation, was “upsetting” and “particularly devastating” for those who suffered child abuse and left because their abuser remained in the congregation.
“I knew I would definitely be shunned by friends, but I honestly didn’t think my siblings would shun me because of what we’d all been through together,” Ms Whitby said.
As a grandmother, the impact on Ms Clare has been heartbreaking.
“One little grandson was with his dad and his dad let him speak to me and he said to me, ‘I’m forgetting you Nanny’. And he said, ‘I’m sorry, Nanny.’ And I said to him, ‘I’ll never forget you’. I said, ‘I will always want you to remember that’.”
Bill Hahn was his congregation’s treasurer or “accounts servant”. He was born into the organisation and raised his three older children as witnesses.
He was “disfellowshipped”, or excommunicated, in 2011, after disagreements with others in the organisation and was shunned by his family.
“Yeah, it’s like a death. Mum died three weeks ago, and I knew it was coming at some point, and I just got a text message from my brother, to say, ‘Oh, by the way, mum died yesterday of stomach cancer. Doesn’t want a funeral. Didn’t want a fuss, and that’s it’,” Mr Hahn said.
He also grieves for his two boys and eldest daughter, who continue to shun him.
“So, really, for the last 10 years, from when the reality of it set in, that, ‘Okay, they view me as dead’ — you almost mourn in reverse,” he said.
“In fact, within the ex-Jehovah’s witnesses, we do it once a year, [there] is a memorial day … you take a bunch of flowers and a card to mourn the loss of your family, and leave it on the door of a Kingdom Hall.”
“I just had to grieve the fact that, until they wake up themselves and leave and come out of the religion, that, basically, I just have to view them, that they’ve passed away, which is not nice, but it’s a way of coping.”
In a statement to Four Corners, the Jehovah’s Witnesses defended the practice of shunning.
They say congregation members “exercise their personal religious conscience … to limit or cease their association with a disfellowshipped person.”
Renee Pickles was born into the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1976.
She said her childhood was governed by the organisation’s strict rules about the way to dress and behave as well as the requirement to proselytise door-to-door, known as “witnessing”.
The organisation controlled all aspects of her life until it cast her out, severing her from everyone she was close to.
She was a congregation member until 1997 when, aged just 21, she was interrogated by a judicial committee over her personal life, judged to be “unrepentant” and disfellowshipped.
“It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I believe it is the main reason for a lot of my trauma. It was basically three men who were in an interview panel with me,” she said.
She was cast out into a world she was completely unprepared for.
“I had nobody to turn to, and then I’d lost my entire family and community. So it was like I landed in a different planet and it was an extremely lonely period of time. It was unbelievable.”
She is speaking out in order to expose the organisation’s practices.
“Everybody thinks that Jehovah’s Witnesses are just friendly, nice-looking people, maybe a bit quirky, who knock on doors,” she said.
“It’s very difficult to help people understand just how dangerous this group is and what a harrowing experience people who leave have to go through.”
Ms Pickles said she was so traumatised by her experiences that, for years, she would be terrified when witnesses came knocking on her door.
COVID-19 has shuttered Kingdom Halls and stopped door-knocking in Sydney, but Ms Pickles said she was prepared for them when they resume their door-to-door proselytising.
“I would try to help them. I understand that it’s very difficult to help them because they’re very enmeshed. I know what it was like when I was in it. It took me so long to wake up from it … But I’d just be kind and just hope that one day they will have the opportunity to leave.”
Ms Whitby said she had found great inner strength since leaving the organisation.
“[They took] 33 years of my life, and I’m not letting them take any more. They’re not taking another part of my life,” Ms Whitby said.
She still has hope for those who remain trapped inside, including her own siblings.
“I know there are still good people inside the congregations. I know that. So I have no hate against a lot of the members, but the organisation itself, I hate them and they need to change.”
The royal commission uncovered a vast cache of files compiled by Jehovah’s Witnesses members over more than 60 years.
These files documented allegations and confessions of the abuse of more than 1,800 children by more than 1,000 alleged perpetrators in Australia.
The royal commission found no evidence the Australian branch office had ever alerted authorities about any of the alleged abuse documented in these files.
“The scale, the strangeness, the intimacy of what was recorded, and the fact that none of it had been reported — it was astounding,” said James Pender, a solicitor for the royal commission.
The royal commission slammed the Jehovah’s Witnesses for failing to report child sexual abuse to police.
It made three key recommendations: That the organisation should involve women in its judicial committees; abandon the two-witness rule in abuse cases; and stop shunning people who leave due to abuse.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses say they will not implement these recommendations because their practices are based on the Bible.
They say the royal commission conflated family child sex abuse with abuse occurring within their organisation and that there is actually no evidence the Jehovah’s Witnesses are guilty of what is typically considered institutional abuse.
In 2019, elders investigating the sins of congregants in Australia were advised against making notes of conversations.
The instruction said: “If the so-called ‘wild talk’ [of a member] is recorded in detail, it may not be accurately assessed when reviewed out of context” and any personal notes “should be destroyed once a summation of the hearing has been prepared”.
A 2020 document describes the royal commission’s findings as “factually wrong and unlawful”.
The organisation has long resisted joining a redress scheme designed to compensate abuse survivors.
It formally joined the scheme last week after the Federal Government threatened to withhold funding and strip the organisation of its charity status.
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